India needs a new integrated approach to Eurasia

India needs a new integrated approach to Eurasia

Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy has gained political and institutional traction, thanks to intense Indian diplomacy in recent years. Now he must devote a similar energy to developing a “Eurasian” policy. If the Indo-Pacific is about Delhi’s new maritime geopolitics, Eurasia implies the recalibration of India’s continental strategy.

This week’s consultations in Delhi on the crisis in Afghanistan among key security policy makers in the region, following the US withdrawal, are part of the development of a Eurasian strategy. National security adviser Ajit Doval has invited his counterparts from Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, Russia and China to join this discussion on Wednesday. Moeed Yusuf from Pakistan has refused to join. It is not yet clear whether China will attend. Pakistan’s reluctance to engage with India in Afghanistan reveals Delhi’s lingering problem with Islamabad in shaping a new Eurasian strategy. But it also reinforces the urgency of an Indian strategy to deal with Eurasia.

After years of self-doubt, Delhi has closed the internal debate on the Indo-Pacific and made it an integral part of India’s foreign and security policies. Given its novelty and strategic relevance, the Quad or Quadrilateral forum linking India with Australia, Japan and the US, occupies a prominent place in the Indo-Pacific debate. But Delhi now has a combination of other important unilateral, bilateral, minilateral and multilateral initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.

As in the Indo-Pacific, in Eurasia, there is no shared international understanding of what constitutes the region. Among those studying the geography of landmass and oceans, there are agreed definitions of the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. If the Indo-Pacific describes the long strip of tropical waters from the east coast of Africa to the central Pacific, Eurasia is the name of a tectonic plate that lies beneath much of what we know as Europe and Asia. But the problem begins when it comes to the political geography of Eurasia. In Russia’s definition, Eurasia covers the former territories of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. In other words, it is about Russia’s political claim to have a sphere of influence in its “near abroad.” Then there are various older usages like “Inner Asia” and “Central Asia” that cover parts of the region. Given the deep connection between Muslim Central Asia and Western Asia, some prefer the term “Greater Middle East” to describe parts of this region.

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For Delhi, it makes sense to use the broadest possible definition of Eurasia when reinventing the region. The most important development in Eurasia today is the dramatic rise of China and its growing strategic assertiveness, expansion of economic power, and growing political influence. Beijing’s vigorous approach to the long and disputed border with Bhutan and India, its pursuit of a security presence in Tajikistan, its active pursuit of a greater role in Afghanistan, and a greater voice in the affairs of the sub-Himalayan region more broad are only part of the story. As the world’s second-largest economy, China’s trade influence is felt around the world. Physical proximity multiplies the economic impact of China in the interior regions of Asia.

The impressive expansion of the China Belt and Road initiative in Central Asia and Russia, to the Atlantic shores, and Europe’s growing economic interdependence with China have added to Beijing’s powerful advantages in Eurasia. These advantages, in turn, were reinforced by a deepening alliance with Russia that stretches to both sides of the heart of Eurasia. Russia’s intractable disputes with Europe and the United States have increased Moscow’s dependence on Beijing.

Amid China’s growing challenges in the maritime dominance of the Indo-Pacific, Washington has begun to rethink its strategic commitments to Eurasia. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is just the beginning of a redefinition of America’s global strategic priorities. Even Europe, which has seen a massive deployment of US military resources since World War II, is not immune to the inevitable rearrangement of the global disposition of the US military. Washington and Brussels are now in the middle of a major debate on how to rebalance transatlantic responsibilities for the collective defense of Europe.

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Whether defined as “burden sharing” in Washington or “strategic autonomy” in Brussels, Europe must necessarily assume a broader Eurasian regional security role. More generally, the regional powers are going to reshape Eurasia.

India has certainly dealt with the constituent spaces of Eurasia separately for decades. What Delhi needs now is an integrated approach to Eurasia. Like the Indo-Pacific, Eurasia is new to India’s strategic discourse.

To be sure, there are references to the ancient civilizational ties of India to Eurasia. The collaboration between Sangha and Shreni in the Buddhist era produced a lasting interaction between the two regions. India’s inward orientation after the decline of Buddhism did not stop the flow of forces from Central Asia to the subcontinent. The arrival of the British in India and the consolidation of the Raj as a territorial entity in the subcontinent saw the outward projection of the influence of India in Central Asia. Britain’s rivalry with Russia during the Great Game in the 19th and early 20th centuries placed Eurasian geopolitics at the top of India’s undivided security agenda. However, the partition of the subcontinent and India’s physical disconnection from the interior of Asia isolated India from Eurasian geopolitics. Overcoming the geographic limitation, represented by the barrier of Pakistan, will be critical to a more widespread role for India in Eurasian geopolitics.

While there are many elements to an Indian strategy towards Eurasia, three of them stand out. One is to put Europe back in the Indian mainland calculation. Before independence, many Indian nationalists turned to Europe to secure the nation’s liberation from British colonialism. After independence, Delhi’s drift toward an alliance with Moscow caused India to neglect the strategic importance of Europe. As India intensifies its engagement with Europe, the time has come to start a strategic conversation with Brussels on Eurasian security. This will be a natural complement to the incipient engagement between India and Europe in the Indo-Pacific.

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India’s Eurasian policy must necessarily involve greater engagement with both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A dedicated military office in the Indian mission to Brussels, where the EU and NATO are based, will be a crucial step towards a sustained security dialogue with Europe.

The second is to intensify the Eurasian security dialogue with Russia. While the Indo-Russian differences in the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, China and the Taliban are real, Delhi and Moscow have good reason to narrow their differences in Afghanistan and expand cooperation on Eurasia’s mainland security.

Third, there is India’s important collaboration with Persia and Arabia. If the location of Persia makes it critical for the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia, the religious influence of Arabia and the weight of the Gulf capital are quite important in the region. India’s partnerships with Persia and Arabia are also critical in overcoming Turkey’s alliance with Pakistan that is hostile to Delhi.

India is sure to find many contradictions in each of the three areas: between the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Iran, and the Arab Gulf. As in the Indo-Pacific, in Eurasia, Delhi should not allow these contradictions to hold back India.

The current flow in Eurasian geopolitics will reduce some of the current contradictions and generate some new antinomies in the coming days. But the key for India lies in increased strategic activism that opens up opportunities in all directions in Eurasia.

The writer is Director of the Institute for South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and Contributing Editor on International Affairs for The Indian Express.

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